The Skiing 60%
Value for Money 78%
An unpretentious Tirolean town with an attractive medieval centre. The lift system is based around a couple of modern gondolas and other transport is now being upgraded. All in all, it’s a good destination for families, beginners and lower intermediates.
Fritz Minhard was born in St Johann in Tirol and has been involved in tourism for 35 years. His first job was as a ski instructor during his school holidays when he was just 17 and he went on to become a founder member of the Wilder Kaiser ski school. These days he still teaches children to ski during high season weeks, takes people on walking tours in the summer, and runs his own tour operation – Active World Holidays – in the winter.
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Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
I love St Johann because it’s a living town with a life outside tourism and not an artificial ski resort. There’s a 50/50 balance of visitors and people who work here all year round. As a destination it’s had its ups and downs since its 1980s heyday. But, largely thanks to recent outside investment in the ski area, St Johann is definitely on the up once again.
One problem is that people think Austrian resorts are too low when compared to France, which is just not true. A place like St Johann may only be at an altitude of 670m, but that is the equivalent of a resort in the French Alps being at 1500m – the reason is because as you move further east the snowline drops in altitude.
But the big news story for St Johann today is that the Scandinavian company Skistar, who owns Are in Sweden, and Hemsedal and Trysil in Norway, has bought a majority share in the local lift company. Their first project is to build a brand new gondola to replace the old T-bars up from Eichenhof for the 2016-17 season, and more new lifts will be added after that. Their input will dramatically transform this little mountain.
Technically, it would be easy to link St Johann to the Kitzbuheler Horn. It’s been talked about for generations, but it could now happen – Kitzbuhel is planning to revamp its lift there in 2018 and a link could then become an attractive proposition for both parties.
The pretty but unpretentious Tirolean town with its ornately frescoed buildings and old coaching inns retains a considerable charm, and whatever happens up on the mountain won’t change this. It has a good choice of shops, restaurants and bars, but the resort is often overlooked by winter visitors in favour of its better-known neighbours, Kitzbuhel, Soll and Ellmau, which are bigger and more sophisticated, with larger lift systems.
In fact these resorts can all be reached by bus or train from St Johann in under half an hour – perfect for a day’s skiing. Innsbruck is also close enough for a day trip. Geographically, St Johann is located in the Kitzbuheler Alps, home to over 20 villages including Kirchberg, Waidring, Hopfgarten, Brixen Im Thale, Westendorf, and Fieberbrunn – again, all these are a short distance by bus or train.
If you buy opt the Kitzbuheler Alpen AllStarCard, rather than the local pass, you will have unlimited access to more than 1000km of slopes, including St Johann in Tirol, Kitzbuhel, SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental, Ski Juwel Alpbachtal-Wildschonau, Fieberbrunn and Waidring.
St Johann’s skiing, however, is less busy than many of its neighbours’ and provides an unthreatening area for beginners, second-week skiers, and families.
Guide to the Mountain
Don’t expect a big ski area with steep slopes and off-piste. St Johann is a good ski area for beginners to lower intermediates and families, but not for advanced skiers. There is a series of dedicated nursery slopes on the gentle meadows behind the station and in the hamlet of Eichenhof.
Main mountain access is by a two-stage gondola, which brings you up to the 1700m summit of Harschbichl. There can be queues at 10am each morning, especially during high season when the ski schools meet, but these tend to disperse quickly. You can also take the alternative, and usually near-deserted, eight-seater gondola that rises from Penzing on the edge of Oberndorf.
The new gondola for 2016-17 from Eichenhof will transform the other end of the ski area, which also has some of the more challenging terrain.
The snowpark is maintained and professionally shaped by QParks, Europe’s largest park operator. It features various boxes, as well as two kickers with two jumps each, and a boardercross course with waves and steep turns. Another highlight is the SkiMovietrack, an innovative installation that enables riders to be filmed during their runs, using their ski passes and a specific code. Afterwards they can access the visual material online.
Where to Learn
The resort has a choice of four ski schools offering ski and snowboarding tuition: St Johann is the oldest and used to have the monopoly until the 1990s when it was joined by the Wilder Kaiser ski school. In the outlying villages you’ll find the Eichenhof ski school and Total Kirchdorf. There is also a cross-country school Sinus Sport, for those wanting to learn how to ski the 250km of prepared loipe located in the area.
Lots for families to do after skiing
St Johann ski school runs Bobo’s Ski Kindergarten, which accepts children from four years of age. Eichenhof’s Kinderland also cares for children from four years old. As an added attraction, it has a children’s Skidoo School for those aged eight years and upwards. The Kapa Nursery offers babysitting for babies and small children.
The Horn Park, reached from the main gondola mid-station, has a Flying Fox (zip-wiring) course for both adults and kids, which is over 500m long with seven ‘stations’. The Panorama Badewelt is a newly renovated recreation centre with a 25m lap pool, outdoor swimming-pool with massage jets, a children’s pool, spa facilities, and a water chute.
Other activities in the resort include tobogganing, floodlit ice-skating, snowshoeing and torchlight walks.
Where to Stay
St Johann has a friendly atmosphere and its attractive centre retains all the charm of a traditional Tirolean town. Stay in (or close to) the pedestrianised centre if you can, where most of the shops and galleries, two supermarkets, traditional bakeries and cake shops are located.
Hotel Laerchenhof, in the outlying village of Erpendorf, is the resort’s only five-star and it has its own shuttle bus and a lift linking into the ski area. The four-stars are led by the gorgeous Hotel Post, which dates from 1225 and is beautifully frescoed on the outside with each room individually decorated and recently updated. It houses a spa and two eateries – the gourmet restaurant Tavern and The Postmarkt which is part bistro/part shop.
The four-star St Johanner Hof is an all-inclusive family specialist hotel, with an in-house creche that runs myriad activities for little ones between 10am and 8pm daily. These include tracking animals in the snow, horse-drawn carriage rides, music and games, snowman building, and a Punch & Judy show. The owners also have a three-star all-inclusive hotel, Hotel Central, with in-house childcare, games room and family rooms.
Hotel Gasthof Park is a family-friendly hotel near the gondola, offering single, double, and triple bedrooms. It also has a children’s playroom. Alpenhotel Kaiserfels is a four-star which opened in 2015 at the base of the Eichenhof slope. It has two restaurants and a spa.
Most innovative hotel here is The Adeo Alpin, brainchild of former Olympic champion racer Hermann Maier. The aim is to make skiing more affordable and this is the budget airline concept taken to the piste, but with a lot of style. Prices are per night and everything else, including breakfast and dinner, is an add-on extra.
All the bedrooms and the sole three-bedroom apartment are decorated with lots of pale wood, and would not be out of place in any high-end French residence. We love the minimalist style. There’s also a sauna and fitness room, in-house ski rental, and a chair-lift into the ski area is a short walk away.
Sporthotel Austria has pleasantly decorated rooms in traditional style and is located in a central yet quiet location. Facilities include an indoor swimming-pool, rooms varying from singles to doubles, and family apartments. Hotel Fischer is also located in the pedestrian area and has recently been refurbished, with typical Tirolean bedrooms, an attractive dining room with ancient beams and wood-panelled ceiling, a bar and Stuberl, and a children’s playroom.
Family-friendly Gasthof zur Schoenen Aussicht is set just above the main gondola station with views down to the town. You can ski to and from the door, but if you venture downtown in the evening, be prepared for a brisk uphill walk home. Hotel Bruckenwirt is a smart family-run hotel, close to the centre of town. It has imaginatively-designed bedrooms and the restaurant is known for its good cuisine.
Where to Eat
The resort has more than 50 eateries in all. In the town itself, Lange Mauer serves Chinese cuisine. Ristorante La Rustica is for pizzas, Villa Masianco (+43 5352 64630) serves a mix of Italian, Mexican and Asian dishes. Finks is for pizzas, pasta and steaks. Try also the restaurants in Gasthof Baeren, Hotel Park and Hotel Post.
Up the mountain are 14 restaurants, all of them delightful wooden huts with table service, and all with very affordable food and drink. Harschbichlhutte (+43 5352 64671) at the top of the main gondola has good Gulaschsuppe. Koasaburg has home-cooked cuisine and a sunny terrace. Gasthof Granderschupf, in the Eichenhof area, has an interior that looks a bit like an American-style barn. Bassgeigeralm is also recommended. Alpengasthof Stanglalm is a cosy place serving delicious Kaiserschmarrn and other Austrian specialities.
Where to Party
St Johann in Tirol has a relaxed atmosphere and a relatively quiet nightlife for a Tirolean resort, but there are a few decent bars. Popular venues include s’Nandl (+43 5352 20735), just outside the pedestrian centre with a modern minimalist design of stripped wood floors, grey and turquoise armchairs.
In town, Max Pub (+43 5352 62428) and the local brewery Huber-Brau Stuberl are where to head for apres-ski, the latter is one of the town’s landmarks with its pink tower and it also serves wholesome snacks. Rockbar (+43 5352 63610 714) in Erpendorf is another popular apres-ski venue. Gasthaus Zum Dampfel is a traditional building in the pedestrian zone with a lovely frescoed exterior and a bar inside. Medusa Lounge provides the late-night entertainment.
There is a wide choice of non-ski activities in the resort. Hot-air ballooning is a wonderful way to see the beautiful Wilder Kaiser mountains and this can be organised through Ballooning Tyrol. Other non-ski sports in the resort include ice-skating, tobogganing, paragliding, bowling, and sleigh rides.
On Wednesday evenings you can night-ski here. Highlight for families is Panorama Badewelt, which is open daily until 9pm with swimming-pools, a helter-skelter, and a spa.
The St Johann Museum, housed in an 18th-century building, contains an exhibition of local history including traditional costumes, paintings and photos, wood carvings and examples of local geology.